April 19, 2008
Last week, in my column on Wikipedia’s zealots, I described how the website’s editors patrol the website’s pages to enforce the conventional wisdom on climate change. Anyone skeptical of the United Nations’ take on global warming gets swarmed — Wikipedia’s enforcers neutralize him and his comments or take him out completely. The Wikipedia site in this way has become a paragon of modern propaganda, operating under the illusion of Internet openness and respect for democratic process, while in reality inhabiting a fantasy world in which up is down and words mean whatever you want them to mean.
My column focused on a Wikipedia page for a U.S. scientist named Naomi Oreskes who had surveyed a major scientific database and amazingly found not one study — zero — that questioned the UN view of climate change. Many science writers and scientists immediately challenged Oreskes’s findings, among them a British scientist named Benny Peiser. Wikipedia editors whitewashed criticism of her study — thoroughly discredited though it was — and for good measure they trashed Peiser. I attempted to edit the Wikipedia page to note some of the criticism of Oreskes’s study, and to remove incorrect information about Peiser. My changes were repeatedly eradicated by a Wikipedia editor. I then wrote about my experience with Wikipedia in my column in the National Post.
To counter my criticism, the Wikipedia editor posted a rebuttal on the National Post’s blog, which I and a few other Post editors manage. I must confess that I took a mischievous delight at the thought of instantly deleting the rebuttal in revenge — something I am able to do. But that is not the culture in a newspaper. The Wikipedia editor’s comments are allowed to stand, and readers are allowed to assess them.
The Wikipedia editor justified his decision to remove my edits by saying that “these kinds of edits are routinely reverted, especially when done on a biography of a living person — and doubly so — when the only documentation for the claims is an anonymous editor’s claim that ‘he got this from Peiser himself.’ (Yes — Mr. Solomon didn’t identify himself).”
This is a bizarre assertion. I identified myself in the many exchanges, repeatedly, as “Lawrence Solomon.” It turns out this style of identification can offend and exasperate Wikipedians. The proper identification in the World of Wikipedia, a patient Wikipedian later informed me, begins with four tildes, as follows, ~~~~. This code then triggers the insertion of a Wikipedian-approved identity.
To be properly understood, the Wikipedia editor’s assertion about my acting anonymously must be cast in a deeper relief. In my world, the newspaper and public policy book publishing world, all works are signed. Readers readily know who wrote what and they can make judgements based on the credibility and reputation of the writer. In the World of Wikipedia, no articles are signed and anonymity reigns. Pseudonyms such as Tabletop and Coppertwig are the rule. Nothing is transparent.
And much is dark. Apparently, there is a very good and practical reason to maintain anonymity in Wikipedia. It can be Wicked Pedia. As Major Bonkers, a senior Wikipedian who befriended me advised, “you appear to be editing under your real name. I have to say, based on my own experience that this could be a mistake; it’s relatively easy for a computer’s address to be traced to a geographical location and Google can start filling out the gaps. I’ve seen rival editors come out with ‘I know where you live’-type comments and worse. Whilst most of us are rational, sensible people, there are also people out there who are complete nutcases. Not that I want to put you off!” Gb, another kind Wikipedian, and one who has a high rank in the Wikipedian hierarchy, advised me to “take Major Bonker’s suggestion to heart — if you’re planning on sticking around, using your real name may not be ideal.”
Of course, it is too late for me to become anonymous. References to my Wikipedia’s zealots column now appears on several hundred blogs, along with my name. But how odd a thought that a writer would want anonymity. Or maybe not so odd. In the real world, those who want anonymity are either ashamed of their conduct — say, poison pen writers — or fear for their safety — say, writers inside China criticizing their government. In the world of Wicked Pedia, the same two reasons rule.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute, and author of The Deniers. http://www.energyprobe.org Email: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com.
This is the second in a continuing series. To read the first in the series, “Wikipedia’s Zealots”, please see: http://energy.probeinternational.org/climate-change/the-deniers/wikipedias-zealots